As a dietetic intern, I have the privilege of working in several different nutrition-related settings. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time counseling pregnant, breastfeeding, and weaning mothers and babies. Since this is one of my main areas of interest within the nutrition field, I’ve really enjoyed being able to work with this population and learn more about how to counsel them.
I’ve learned so many things about specific nutrition needs for this particular population, including what pregnant woman should be eating, how to breastfeed or formula-feed, and how to start introducing complementary solid foods to a baby. So where does baby-led weaning come into this? And what is baby-led weaning exactly? Keep reading to learn more about this up-and-coming nutrition technique!
The Traditional Method
Before we delve into what baby-led weaning is, let’s first look at the traditional weaning method that has been used for the past several decades. As we all know, babies first start off getting only breastmilk or formula. For years, the recommendation was to do this exclusively for the first 4-6 month of baby’s life, then parents could start to slowly introduce single-ingredient pureed baby foods. It was then recommended that parents wait about a week after introducing a single food to see if baby had any sort of allergic reaction. Then, after a period of time, they could introduce another food, and repeat the process.
Gradually, baby foods start to contain 2 or more ingredients as parents begin to introduce more and more foods. Steadily, parents will introduce foods with more chunks and bumps. And then eventually move to finger foods when ready. This method became more and more popular when baby food became more heavily commercialized, with brands such as Gerber really taking off. But in recent years, with health trends and scratch cooking rising in popularity again, a new method has taken center stage.
The Baby-Led Method
If you simply search “baby-led weaning” on Google, you will likely see many trendy moms and dads raving about this new method. While baby-led weaning is definitely a trendy topic right now, it is actually very credible and backed by science. There is not yet one standardized definition of baby-led weaning, but here are some of the general basic premises. This method of weaning essentially skips over the whole “baby food” step from the traditional weaning method and jumps right to finger foods starting at 6 months of age. Rather than starting with purees (though those can be included), you start with regular family foods and cut them into easy-to-eat pieces. This way, baby is eating the same foods as the rest of the family at mealtimes. While parents are still encouraged to keep an eye on common allergens when introducing foods, there is not as much of an emphasis of doing one food at a time. Parents are encouraged to introduce allergens early on, so to prevent the onset of allergies and intolerances.
Another main difference between baby-led weaning and traditional weaning is the fact that you do not start until 6 months of age. Any earlier could be dangerous because a baby’s oral motor development isn’t quite ready before this. (Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics has changed the guidelines to start solid foods no earlier than 6 months. So this has become more common practice.) It is important for parents to watch for signs of readiness, and to start between 6-7 months of age. Any earlier could be dangerous, but any later could lead to developmental delays.
Another key part of baby-led weaning is baby having the control. Baby will show when he/she is ready to start family foods. And once they are eating with the family, they feed themselves (starting with fingers and later with utensils). There is a clear-cut division of responsibility here, in which parents choose what, when, and where the feeding is, and baby chooses whether or not they eat and how much they eat. With baby-led weaning, parents are encouraged to let their children self-feed and never to force feed, which is actually common practice with traditional weaning.
The Benefits of Baby-Led Weaning
The reason so many dietitians and other health professionals have backed the concept of baby-led weaning is because it really does have so many benefits. Some of these benefits include:
- It prevents picky eating.
- It’s practical.
- It helps with development of fine motor and oral motor skills.
- It can help the whole family to eat a more whole-food-based diet.
- It emphasizes family mealtimes.
- It encourages a healthy relationship with food that can last a lifetime.
- It encourages a healthy body weight and helps keep baby’s natural hunger cues intact.
While most babies should be fine to use the baby-led weaning method, there are some cases in which it may not be appropriate and some things to be aware of:
- Developmentally delayed/premature babies may not be able to do baby-led weaning, especially if they are on tube feeds and/or simply don’t possess the necessary self-feedings skills yet.
- Parents of babies who have failure-to-thrive should also be careful when considering baby-led weaning, as they may not have the appropriate hunger cues and/or may have higher calorie and nutrient needs.
- Parents of babies that may be predisposed to allergies (due to genetics or something else) may have to be a bit more careful if they choose to do the baby-led weaning approach. While it is still possible, more time should be put into introducing these allergens and checking for reactions.
- Choking is another common concern. It’s important to avoid common choking food hazards, to know the signs of choking, and to make sure baby is sitting down and focused while eating.
In general, it is important to discuss your plans and concerns with a pediatrician and a pediatric dietitian before making a decision. While there are lots of online resources regarding baby-led weaning, you and your pediatrician know the needs of your baby best and should thoughtfully choose a weaning method that works for you.
If you’re a parent considering the different weaning methods, baby-led weaning is definitely worth looking into and discussing with your pediatrician! It can help your child develop a healthy relationship with food, gain weight at a healthy rate, and eliminate picky eating. Plus, it allows baby to be more involved with family mealtimes!
A great resource that discusses this topic is “BLW Baby Food Cookbook.” This book was written by two dietitians from Missouri whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. They are extremely knowledgeable about this topic and have lots of great tips and recipes to share in their book!